A Christian student accused by school officials of “laughing” at off-color jokes told by other students, and later sharing his Christian beliefs in a private conversation, was suspended for three days, and now is suing for that punishment.
The Great Lakes Justice Center is representing student David Stout in the case in federal court in the Western District of Michigan.
“My client’s religious speech and beliefs should be treated with tolerance and respect,” explained David A. Kallman, senior legal counsel with the center. “Public schools may not violate the Constitution and enforce a heckler’s veto of student speech. Nothing David did caused any disruption or problem at the school. He has the right to express his opinion in accordance with his sincerely held religious beliefs, without vilification or punishment from the government for holding to those beliefs. Great Lakes Justice Center will defend our client’s freedoms to the fullest extent of the law.”
The center explained the three-day suspension was imposed on Stout “for stating his Christian beliefs in a private text conversation and in a hallway at school.”
Free Speech, But Controlled
“The school also punished him for not policing and reporting other student’s inappropriate jokes. The defendants’ further instructed David that he must stop posting his religious comments on all his social media platforms,” the center explained.
Further, he was punished for the fact that other students were booing during a homecoming event, even though he was participating in both the football team and the halftime band, and was not present when the booing occurred.
The complaint explains that the defendants could provide no specifics about what the student had done wrong except to say “he was accused of ‘laughing’ at some racial and homophobic ‘jokes’ that other kids had told during the summer band camp months ago; that he had participated in an off campus, private group chat/text session during which he texted that God would not accept homosexual conduct because it is a sin; and that he had private, on campus conversations regarding religious beliefs with friends in the band that, while not directed towards any particular person, was overheard by another student.”
The complaint accuses the school of violating the First Amendment, violating his rights under the Michigan constitution, imposing punishment based on vague and unenforceable policies, and violating the Matt Epling Safe School Law.
The complaint explained, “Plaintiff’s speech was his sincerely held Christian belief and, while not popular, none of Plaintiff’s speech, off campus or on campus, amounted to a threat; his off campus speech was not reasonably calculated to reach the school environment; his on campus speech or behavior was never directed to a particular person; none of his speech, off or on campus, posed a serious safety risk to a particular individual, group of people or the school itself; and none of his speech, off or on campus, posed a serious, material and substantial disruption to a particular individual or the school itself.”
The case requests a declaratory judgment that the Plainwell school district violated his rights, injunctive relief, reversal of the school’s disciplinary action and damages.
The student’s father, David J. Stout, explained, “We have always taught our son to be respectful of everyone’s opinion and to be polite to others, as he was here. However, tolerance is a two-way street. David is entitled to properly express his faith and beliefs without being disciplined and suspended by Plainwell schools. We trust the court will uphold David’s constitutional rights and his school record will be cleared.”
Defendants in the case include Plainwell Community Schools, assistant Deb Beals and band directors David Hepinstall and Austin Hunt.